Cairo: Egypt's army chief warned on Tuesday of the "the collapse of the state" if the political crisis roiling the nation for nearly a week continues.
The warning by Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is also defense minister, was the first comment by the powerful military since the country's latest crisis began last week around the second anniversary of Egypt's uprising. They came days after President Mohammed Morsi ordered the army to restore order in the Suez Canal cities of Port Said and Suez - two of three cities now under a 30-day state of emergency and night curfew.
The attempts by Morsi to stem a wave of political violence appear to have made no headway as the country sinks deeper into chaos and lawlessness. So far, nearly 60 people have been killed in five days of unrest.
"The continuation of the conflict between the different political forces and their differences over how the country should be run could lead to the collapse of the state and threaten future generations," el-Sissi said in an address to military academy cadets. His comments were posted on the armed forces' official Facebook page.
On Sunday night, Morsi slapped a month-long state of emergency and a night curfew on Port Said, Suez and Ismailiya, another city on the Suez canal.
Nevertheless, troops stood by and watched on Monday night as thousands took to the streets chanting against Morsi in all three cities in direct defiance of the curfew just as it came into force for the first night at 9 pm. The display of contempt for the president's decision was tantamount to an outright rebellion that many worried could spread.
Some of the demonstrators in Port Said waved white-and-green flags they said were the colors of a "new and independent state" in the city. Such a secession would be unthinkable in Egypt, but the move underlined the depth of frustration in the strategic city on the Mediterranean coast at the northern tip of the Suez Canal.
El-Sissi, who was named defense minister in August, acknowledged the difficult challenges facing his troops in the cities where they deployed.
"The deployment of the armed forces poses a grave predicament for us insofar as how we balance avoiding confrontations with Egyptian citizens, their right to protest and the protection and security of vital facilities that impact Egypt's national security," he said.
Morsi is the first freely elected president in Egypt. But since coming to office nearly seven months ago, he has failed to tackle the country's massive political, social and economic problems ranging from an economy in free fall to surging crime, chaos on the streets and lack of political consensus.
The wave of unrest has touched cities across the country since Thursday, including Cairo, the three Suez Canal cities, Alexandria on the Mediterranean in the north and a string of cities in the Nile Delta.
The violence first erupted on Thursday and accelerated on Friday when protests marking the two-year anniversary of the 2001 uprising turned to clashes around the country that left 11 dead, most of them in Suez.
The next day, riots exploded in Port Said after a court convicted and sentenced to death 21 defendants - mostly locals - for a mass soccer riot in the city's main stadium a year ago. Rioters attacked police stations, clashed with security forces in the streets and shots and tear gas were fired at protester funerals in mayhem that left 44 people dead over the weekend.